Archive for August, 2007

cautionary tales for children

I read the entire Vorkosigan Saga in one delicious gulp, sneaking away from Jeremy and the girls and work and sleep in order to dwell in my Milesian idyll. SPOILERS COMMENCE HERE. I thought the last few novels were less than satisfactory, mostly for reasons similar to those outlined here. I’m perfectly happy with comic Heyerian mystery/love stories with well-done set pieces – they’re no space operas, but they’ll do – but I just never bought Ekaterin as any kind of match for Miles, primarily because she never challenged him in any way. In particular, there’s this big formal homage to Pride & Prejudice in Miles’s letter to Ekaterin, but where Darcy explains himself and then goes away and *does something about* Lizzie’s perfectly valid criticisms of his behaviour, Miles explains himself and then Ekaterin thinks “OH! Well that’s all right then.” Which is not the same thing at all.

Of course it’s a huge deal when Darcy goes off to London to give Wickham, of all people, a year’s income to persuade him to marry Lydia; but I’m almost equally touched by the earlier moment at Pemberley, when Darcy urges Mr Gardiner to come and fish in his lakes, offering to lend him all the necessary tackle. The Gardiners, don’t forget, are a perfectly ordinary mercantile couple from London, a step down even from the people Darcy was being bored to death by at Netherfield. His respectful kindness to Mr Gardiner is his way of showing Lizzie that she was right to chastize him; that a true gentleman is charming and hospitable to middle-class people too; in short, that he has listened to her and changed his haughty ways. Darcy is, of course, lovely in this scene, but loveliest of all is Miss Austen looking thoughtfully at her tall dark handsome rich hero and thinking “Hmm, how will he need to change to be good enough for Lizzie?”

Bujold doesn’t do this, and it’s a shame. L. Timmel Duchamp is good on another literary homage, the one to Sayers when Miles jokes with himself about writing a sonnet and then doesn’t bother. It’s a telling moment. Peter Wimsey’s sextet, completing Harriet Vane’s sonnet, is one of the best moments in their love affair, demonstrating how very well-matched they are in intelligence, education and imagination. The sonnet itself is about finding an uneasy peace in a tumultuous world, a feat only possible through the dynamic balance of opposites, through effort and the act of will. It’s a love offering to Harriet but also a challenge to her, and a promise. The sonnet is a working model of what their marriage might be.

Miles’ letter is just a letter. It’s a very nice letter, but it doesn’t get us anywhere. I never got the feeling Ekaterin could absorb the whole force of Miles’ personality. She’s a retread of Elena with even less to say for herself. There’s a fanfic niche dedicated to Miles/Gregor, and while it doesn’t really grab me it is a more realistic pairing, in that what Miles seems to really need is someone of extraordinary depth and subtlety and strength of character to tell him in no uncertain terms when to knock it off. Someone like – his mother! And that’s what’s so annoying about Miles/Ekaterin; it’s not a patch on Aral/Cordelia.

Probably my favourite moment in the whole saga is a glimpse of Miles at the beginning of Mirror Dance, when he’s coming back from a holiday on Escobar with the fabulous Elli Quinn, and they’re both enjoying the sidelong looks they’re getting from other people – “How did someone like *him* hook up with someone like *her?*” Of course it’s the ironic beginning of a slide into catastrophic military engagements and sudden death, but that only makes it more appealing. Miles is at the height of his powers, matched with a woman every bit as smart and kick-ass as he is. Ah, if only she’d married him.

Oh, and my favourite story of the whole lot was The Mountains of Mourning, a murder investigation of a baby with a facial deformity. Which makes a somewhat awkward segue into the next book I picked up, Truth & Beauty, Ann Patchett’s memoir of her friendship with Lucy Grealy. If you haven’t read Grealy’s masterpiece The Autobiography of a Face you should really stop reading this blog, follow that link and order it off Powells immediately. I’m saying this for your own good.

Patchett knew Grealy long before that masterpiece was published, and their friendship survived the famestorm that ensued. Patchett describes Grealy in the same precise but slightly sentimentalized way she describes music and terrorism in her somewhat overpraised novel Bel Canto, which is to say that she writes about Grealy slightly less well than Grealy wrote about herself. Grealy is funnier than Patchett, braver and more ambitious and darker, and she spills out of the sentences and over the paragraphs and off the page, right up until she snorts OxyContin. And then all her specificity and personhood gets swallowed up, and by the time she dies she has already left the building.

I was annoyed with Grealy for taking that way out, but not half as annoyed as I was with Diana, Princess of Wales. Tina Brown’s The Diana Chronicles is a guilty pleasure, a terrifically well-written and gossipy thriller that reads like non-fiction Jilly Cooper. It made me very grateful that I never followed through on my childhood dream of marrying Prince Edward. Brown makes the point that by the time we’re in our twenties most women have grown out of that particular delusion; Diana’s tragedy was to lose her mother in a very Pyrrhic custody battle and be raised by wolves straight from the pages of Nancy Mitford.

Being a young woman of unusual determination, she makes the best of a bad situation, exploits her aristocratic connections and lands herself a conflicted and no longer very young Prince Charles. At which point her good judgment seems to desert her entirely, if indeed it hadn’t already done so. There are harrowing – to me at least – scenes on the honeymoon, on the royal yacht Britannia, when Charles is reading Laurens van der Post and trying to discuss it with Diana. Diana, who loathes books that aren’t by Barbara Cartland, escapes and makes friends with the staff and crew below deck. You’re irked with Charles for being such a fussy old stick, of course, but you’re ten times as irritated with Diana for not even making the damn effort to engage.

It’s not really going too far to say that her life depended on it.

Anyway, I’d’ve quite liked to spend my honeymoon reading Laurens van der Post (it was actually Hemingway and Gertrude Stein), and I wouldn’t mind spending every August in Balmoral. I’d get Princess Anne to give me riding lessons. I like to think I would not have been such a colossal baby over Charles’ affection for Camilla. Camilla seems quite a jolly old stick to me. I don’t know, it’s easy to cast nasturtiums when you’re not walking a mile in another person’s four-inch heels, but for a woman so ridiculously endowed with beauty, money and fame, Diana certainly had a wretched life. It came across very clearly in that train-wreck of an interview slimy Martin Bashir did with her on Panorama. Without any kind of education, her native intelligence was channelled entirely into new-age claptrap, paranoid intrigue and street smarts. She had no perspective, no intellectual resources to speak of. Lucy Grealy made almost infinitely more of herself, starting with far less.

Oh, the things I have to teach my daughters, the things they will need to know! How to live with another human being; how to live without one. How to read the fine print on credit card applications, how to save, how to understand fixed versus variable interest rates, how to pay off the mortgage early. How to forgive – that’s a huge one. How to forgive themselves. How to be kind. As if I knew! How to learn, how to fake it till they make it, how to jump through bureaucratic hoops, when to tell the bureaucrats to take a running leap. How to be utterly disarming, how to defend themselves. That other people are real, living beings with their own needs and wants and inner lives. That other countries have their own currencies and customs. Oh my daughters and the delight of my lives, may you be women of character, may you keep your native integrity and grace; may you spend every spare minute with your noses in a book.

the perfect hangover cure

I missed the best thing that happened last night, because Julia had woken up crying as we crashed in from dinner and I was in the girls’ bedroom comforting her. What happened was that when Claire saw Big she whispered to Jeremy:

“Is that Uncle Bigman?”

…and when he nodded, she took a running leap into Big’s arms. Big was apparently very pleased about it.

We had dinner at Blue Plate – my appetizer was the highlight, duck meatballs with green figs and proscuitto, rich and sweet. Between the four of us (Big, Rach M., Jeremy and me) we put away two bottles of decent zin and a round of dessert wines as well. We caught up on all possible gossip and laughed a lot. Big and I had both quite unwittingly dyed our hair more or less the same shade of blue.

I went to bed drunk and had feverish dreams. Water was pouring through the cracks in the plaster ceiling and there weren’t enough buckets to catch it all. I went out into the street and found myself in a street full of brownstones in Brooklyn, calling desperately to Jeremy:

“I’m dreaming and I can’t wake up. You have to wake me up.”

I woke up and lay on the couch for a while, then went to bed with a big glass of water. Bebe knocked it onto the floor at dawn, and that was the end of a cursory night’s sleep for me. So I pulled on the running shoes and headed up the hill, because I have become that insufferable thirtysomething bitch for whom 5k with the iPod cranked is the perfect hangover cure.

Long, interesting brunch at Dog, successful piano lesson, then off in frocks to Renaissance Faire where we watched real jousting with real horses! A Belgian Draft and a Clydesdale and a massive jet-black Percheron, the joy of the world! And parrots and a dog pulling a cart and Milo, Jules and Claire chasing each other round and round on the green grass in the sun, squealing with delight! My face still aches from all the grinning.

baby boom!

Boy have my friends been getting bizz-ay. New cuteness, hurrah!

handling criticism

Compare and contrast.

and i’d only had like half a glass of wine


Originally uploaded by Goop on the lens


Bob arrived at dinner in an extraordinary piece of technology, a boned *and* underwired bra that turned her boobage into two perfect, upthrust half-domes. This led to a wench-off, in which the assembled females tried to out-cleavage one another. One stray breast knocked over a wineglass and the wench-off paused to make way for the cleanup.

“What happened to the breasts?” whimpered Yoz.

Shards of glass removed, the wench-off resumed. Jeremy’s fish-eye was all over it.

“We’re colluding in our oppression!” I pointed out, to a chorus of cheers.

that was the week that was

I should maybe blog, huh? The trouble is that everything happened at once, personally, professionally, immigrationally, you name it. It was like living through the denouement of a space opera. The upshot, actually, is that very little has changed. Jeremy remains splendid, the children are gorgeous and infuriating, my life is busy and amusing, my friends are awesome, redwoods are pretty, I like food, I sound like the monologue at the beginning of The Sarah Silverman Show. I’ve learned some very important lessons this week but it’s too soon to tell what they are. Let’s just stick to the basics shall we? Don’t just do something, stand there. Love, valour, compassion! Keep calm and carry on.

in context

Sunday’s race brought my year total to 245.5km, or just over 152 miles. In Middle-earth terms, I’ve run from Hobbiton to just outside Bree. In California, that’s from Bernal Heights, where Julia was conceived, to Big Sur, where Claire was. In tiny little England, I’ve run from London to Manchester. In the real world – and now brace yourselves to be amused by my touchstone for the real world! – I have run from Frenchs Forest to Bathurst.

lyrics, liner notes from claire’s first album

“Rock star guitar!
We know
rock star guitar!”

saw Batman
and Mary Jane…
Yes he did, yes he did.
Oh baby, oh baby!
And then Spider-man
knocked Batman
out of the other movie…”

(sings an octave) “That’s the Mountain Song. It sounds like you’re climbing up a mountain.”

just another san francisco day

Woke up, lay in bed arguing with self about whether to go race. Lost argument, put on running gear and drove lickety-split to where I thought the starting line would be. Got lost. Decided to go for a run anyway. About half a mile in, found the runners under a huge tree, all ready to go.

“Am I too late?”

“No! But I have to let everyone else go, first.” So the race began, and then I registered and got my number, and off I went in pursuit. I picked off the competition one at a time; the eighty-year-old, the four-year-old, the hot blonde in the Genentech shirt. I figured she’d come after me, and sure enough, we paced each other along Chain of Lakes and up JFK.

My lateness blew what shred of a race plan I had out of the water, so I trotted, wheezing, and walked, fretting. I told myself that even if I made my worst time ever, at least I had shown up. I did notice that the race seemed much shorter than usual, the mile marks much closer together, and at one point I surprised the bejesus out of myself by thinking that running along a long slightly downhill stretch felt like resting.

God, Golden Gate Park is never more beautiful than in the morning, in the fog, its grass implausibly green, its trees implausibly imposing. I turned the corner into the Polo Fields and kept to the last shred of my race plan, which was to sprint into the finish. At first I couldn’t understand what the timer said when I crossed the line. I had to go back and check that I had, in fact, run a personal best. Despite taking a two-minute, quarter-mile handicap.

I have nothing but praise for this business of my metabolism working as advertised. Australia’s sporting culture, so brilliantly described in George Perec’s novel W, gave me an antagonistic relationship with my short-legged, short-sighted body. The first crack in the ice was having two glowing pregnancies and efficient, awesome births; Julia helping to demonstrate that Claire was not a fluke.

And now I have been running for six months, very slowly, but very consistently; and a little faster and a little further every time. I’ve lost weight but gained muscle; I still have a pot belly, but no one asks if I’m pregnant any more. I have far more energy and can walk a mile, uphill, without even noticing it, making 24th Street BART a lot more useful than it used to be. What really amazes me is that the dedicated sadists in the PE department at my high school have failed, in the end, to divorce me from my own flesh.

Got home, rounded up kids at some expense of spirit, walked over to Salome’s house for coffee (grownups) and playing (kids). Shannon called and I went downstairs to heartily approve the tiles she bought for our front step at the creative reuse warehouse down in the industrial district; a whole box for less than the cost of a single new tile retail.

When I got back upstairs Jamey and Rowan had arrived, and we all decided to catch the bus to Mission Playground. We took up two lengthways seats on the 49 Van Ness. Milo was squished between Salome in her Jackie O glasses and Jack in his green checked fedora. His solemn freckled two-year-old expression was the exact midpoint between their two faces.

We stopped in at Borderlands to admire Ripley and her half-brother Sly. When we got to the playground, tucked around the back of Valencia, far from the traffic, the trademark Mission sunshine was pouring out of a cloudless sky. Milo drove the playground train for an hour while the grownups sat in the shade and talked politics. And then we had lunch at Burger Joint, and then we caught the bus home, and now the girls are playing in a moderately friendly way with the toy trains, while Jeremy and I read the Internets.

Have I mentioned that I love it here? I love it here.

owl wake

One of the things I desperately love about San Francisco is how normal I seem here, to the point that my vanilla-ness is a standing joke among most of my friends. I love it because I spent 25 years in Australia trying without success to explain myself, my jokes, the way I dressed, the books I read, the subjects I studied, the music and movies I liked, the way I wore my hair and every other perceptible feature of my personality to audiences ranging from the bored but antagonistic to the outright hostile. That blew.

Here, if for example I am mourning an owl, I can be reasonably sure my neighbors will also be mourning, and will throw a wake and bring candles and cookies and flowers to remember her by. Which is exactly what happened last night. It was as Bernal as could be, complete with communal hooting. Julia especially liked that part.

The fourth best news from the owl wake was that Bronwyn found and read a perfect Mary Oliver poem, but I can’t find it online. The third best news was that peregrine falcons are nesting on the hill! The second best news is that Great Horned Owls are nesting in Glen Park, and that they’ve hatched and are raising three chicks!!! Twenty four hours later I am still overjoyed about this.

The best news isn’t mine to share, but you can be sure that when owlets are only the second best news, it’s a pretty damn good party. Owl grief, owl joy. I kept thinking of that great line from Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything: “Life wants to be. Life doesn’t want to be much. From time to time, life goes extinct. Life goes on.”

not kidding about the glittery heart, either

Rach ♥ UK

Originally uploaded by Goop on the lens

not kidding about the polyester union jack


Originally uploaded by Goop on the lens


I usually put it like this: if my mother had been a man I would have had a British passport long ago. Of course if my mother had been a man there wouldn’t be any me. But it’s almost that raw: until 2002, British men could pass citizenship to their adult children, but British women could not. Now that the law has been changed I felt obligated to apply, just to underline the fact that my mother is a human being.

Ceremony was today. I dyed my hair blue and wore a skin-tight white t-shirt with a glittery Union Jack heart. I was not, perhaps, taking the occasion very seriously. Jeremy came for moral support, and to take lots of pics. The British Consulate is in One Sansome, a generic Financial District high-rise, with more laid-back security than most Manhattan fund managers. Thirteen of us filed into the Nova Albion room, where an absurdly flattering picture of Queen Elizabeth II fought for space with a full-sized polyester Union Jack.

I didn’t expect the consul-general to make me laugh (“Love making new Brits. Best part of the job. New taxpayers! Lovely.”); I really didn’t expect to find the whole thing so moving, or to feel such a wild sense of relief in the aftermath. Of course now I am English I am sentimental. I also like Doctor Who, talk funny and drink gallons of tea. So, no change whatsoever.

adorable spacecraft

Watched Roving Mars, a documentary on the awesome Spirit and Opportunity missions which reaffirmed my long-standing crush on mission director Steve Squyres. He describes Spirit as the challenging but hardworking firstborn and Opportunity as Little Miss Perfect; thus giving Claire and Jules their newest nicknames. Rove babies rove! May you too exceed your mission objectives by some orders of magnitude.

no one ever told him rule #1 (no whining)

Was grumpy most of the day. Claire had her second piano lesson. I dreamt of Carnegie Hall. Date night; Jeremy and I went to see the latest Harry Potter film, which I found unexpectedly touching.

J: He was quite the whiny little bitch, though.

R: Oh my God; you should have read the book.

proposed new curses

“Oh blogger.”

“Bloggery bloggery bollocks.”

“Blogger off!”

“He’s a dirty old blogger.”

(singing) “…but a hedgehog can never be bloggered!”

(Possible replacement for “Fsck!”?)